THE END OF CENTURY REVIVAL OF THE STOLEN HOLOCAUST ASSETS ISSUE
Manfred Gerstenfeld interviews Avi Beker
“In the last decade of the previous century, the issue of post-war restitution of Jewish assets stolen during the Holocaust reemerged. This late revival of interest is probably the result of the collapse of communism and the removal of the Soviet threat, as well as the emergence of a new and non-involved generation in Europe which started to raise questions about past national behavior. The end of the Cold War led to an outburst of emotion and exposure of European Holocaust memory as well as repressed guilt feelings. This enabled public discourse which was previously often self-censured.
“Furthermore, the communal confidence of organized Jewry to campaign for historic justice and the growing willingness of Holocaust survivors to claim their rights, helped penetrate the European memory screen and challenge longstanding national myths.”
Dr. Avi Beker is a former Secretary General of the World Jewish Congress. He participated in negotiations with several European governments on the restitution of Holocaust property. He edited The Plunder of Jewish Property during the Holocaust. He presently teaches International Diplomacy at Tel Aviv University.
“Initial diplomatic efforts were focusing on Eastern European countries eager to join the Western world. However, the real breakthrough in negotiations and financial settlements occurred in Western Europe. Confronting national war memories started slowly in Austria, France, the Netherlands and Switzerland shifting also to discussions on Holocaust assets. In 1996, the Norwegian government appointed the first Committee of Inquiry on Holocaust restitution and in the same year, was the first to release its recommendations on a compensation package.
“The World Jewish Congress (WJC) initiated the Jewish diplomatic offensive on Holocaust assets after the fall of communism. In 1992, it led the efforts to establish the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO). Its members included major American Jewish organizations, European Jewish communities and the World Zionist Organization The WJC was responsible for coordinating the Holocaust assets campaign with European Jewish communities in Europe and conducting negotiations with governments. In 1992 the WJC, the WJRO and the Israeli government also signed a memorandum recognizing the role of Israel as ‘a natural heir to Jewish communal and heirless property together with the Jewish world.’
“The renewed restitution process was highly publicized in Europe, the United States and elsewhere. The United States Congress and the administration pressured foreign governments and financial institutions such as banks and insurance companies. The restitution process also led to the establishment of about fifty national investigation commissions between 1996 and 2000. In some countries there were several commissions dealing with different aspects of restitution. They investigated how countries behaved during the war and how stolen property was dealt with after liberation. The commissions’ findings were highly publicized in the countries concerned, as well as in the international media.
“Experts such as Sidney Zabludoff estimated pre-war Jewish property in Europe at $10–15 billion in 1938 prices. Less than 20 percent of this was restituted.From themid-1990s, settlements made with countries and financial institutions amounted to about $4 billion of pledges for a variety of objectives – humanitarian funds for needy survivors, Jewish communities and cultural-remembrance projects, as well as the actual return of looted property and assets such as art objects. Only half of these pledges were disbursed so far, sometimes because of bureaucratic delays and sometimes due to disagreements regarding the distribution goals.
“Switzerland and its banks provided the largest financial settlement – almost $1billion – followed by Germany, Austria, France and the Netherlands. Norway offered the most comprehensive and per capita package in relation to the 2,100 Jews who had lived there before the Holocaust.
“The renewed restitution process had many other implications. Inquiries into property ownership and financial claims forced nations to confront their responsibility for war-time exploitation and extortion of Jews as they were led to their deaths. This process also generated a major increase in academic research on the Holocaust in all countries. Many officials, particularly head of states, issued apologies for the behavior of their respective countries during the war. It took over fifty years for Holocaust remembrance, which had been mainly a Jewish occupation, to become a matter of universal acceptance.
“Revelations in the media and the investigations led to a major reevaluation of national history and remembrance in many countries. The involvement of government officials, intellectuals, journalists and historians together with Jewish Holocaust survivors, created shock waves in international public opinion. Nations were engaged in reassessment of their collective memory leading to a process of rewriting history text books.
Beker concludes: “Only on January 27, 2005 the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, did many world leaders including the president of the United States and European heads of states come to the concentration camp to declare their commitment of ‘never again.’ In the same month, the United Nations passed its first resolution on Commemorating the Holocaust and opened an exhibition on the subject at its New York headquarters.”